As students and future successful people, we all see college as a time to be unique, but most often we emulate people we admire to develop our own identities. In “Mistress America,” the hilariously well-scripted second collaboration between Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming”) and Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”), a lonely college freshman finds her role model in an older sister figure.
Though initially reluctant to involve herself in her mother’s impending marriage, Tracy (Lola Kirke, “Gone Girl”) meets her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Whereas Tracy is the archetype of precocious-but-naïve-Faulkner-
name-dropping English major, Brooke, 10 years older, trailblazes the path to the yupp
ie paradise that lies in Tracy’s future. Brooke crackles with hyperactivity energy, hurling out neatly-packaged Twitticisms and drunken life anecdotes with deadpan timing that would make Lorelai Gilmore bow at her feet. She’s essentially the Manic Pixie Dream Girl grown up. In between teaching Soul Cycle sessions and singing on stage with a band, Brooke dreams up plans for a restaurant-slash-market-slash community center that also moonlights as a yoga center on Tuesdays, and if that doesn’t work out, she has this amazing TV show idea, and oh, there’s this really rich guy from high school who is totally still in love with her, ya know?
Tracy doesn’t actually know, but she eagerly jumps into Brooke’s life with infatuated admiration. She finds Brooke so compelling that she writes a story about her and takes every chance she can get to stay overnight at Brooke’s fancy apartment and tag along to concerts and business meetings galore. Eventually, Tracy helps Brooke turn her restaurant idea into reality, and in true Brooke-fashion, it’s an eccentric adventure.
The characters are parodies and real people all at the same time, masterfully assembled. They’re not forced out of their stereotypes unnaturally, à la High School Musical’s “Stick to the Status Quo” (“I bake!”), which lacks subtlety and, to some extent, realism. Though Tracy idolizes Brooke’s charisma and supports her almost unconditionally, she recognizes that Brooke can’t go through her whole adult life bearing this youthful banner. Even the supposed enemy in the film, Brooke’s high school nemesis whose life is the picture perfect image of “boring” white picket fence type success, adds a much-needed dose of reality to Brooke’s erratic antics. Refreshingly, neither Brooke nor Tracy eradicates her flaws over the course of the film, but rather learn to recognize them and accept them regardless. The film doesn’t tie everything up in a bow; the characters end as works in progress. It feels almost sweeter this way, that they receive a happy resolution but don’t have to be perfect or end a life chapter to do it.
In the final scene, which couples heartwarming sisterly love with Tracy’s overwrought prose for one last joke, I didn’t feel the buoyant warm and fuzzies I’ve come to associate with Baumbach/Gerwig collaborations. There is actually quite a bit of character depth, but the script is so self-aware (and aware that it’s self-aware) that the satire often overwhelms emotion.
Still, the script is witty enough to hold its ground. Before “Mistress America” hit the scene, “Frances Ha” was arguably Baumbach and Gerwig’s best work to date, both as individuals and collaborators. But now, the duo takes all the razor-sharp wit that they’ve previously been known for and amps it up for a delightful romp through a developing sisterly relationship.